The Death Sentence That Defined My Life
By Mark Trautwein
Most people don’t think death has a schedule, at least a knowable one. But if you were infected early in the AIDS epidemic, you thought otherwise. At 61, I have now lived half my life with AIDS, my constant companion and distant cousin, the inseparable identity I won’t let define me, the everyday fact and special circumstance that bent the arc of my life in every way.
Although there was not yet a test for the disease, I mark the beginning of my AIDS life in 1982. It’s hard to imagine now the intensity of sexual liberation that gripped gay men then. Oppression was out. Freedom was ours, and we declared it with sex.
But after a tryst with a famous, closeted actor, a huge raincloud of a bruise appeared on my arm. I was hospitalized with a blood disorder that had no apparent explanation. Befuddled doctors guessed a lot, and asked if I drank gin and tonic. I told them it was my father’s drink. Less absurdly, the disorder had been seen among gay men in New York. The phrase “gay plague” was in the air, but no one knew what it was or how anyone got it. It seemed so random then, picking off strangers and acquaintances for no particular reason, but always, you told yourself, for reasons far from you. Then suddenly it wasn’t far from me at all. I left the hospital certain that I had “it.”
As the epidemic grew through the 1980s, all gay men lived with AIDS, whether infected or not. Thirty years ago today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the first cases of the disease. It was a helpless and terrifying time. Medical information grew. We learned about H.I.V. and sexual transmission, but everything was misty and qualified.
Nothing you knew or did mattered. There was no treatment. Every sniffle threatened something worse, every germ was a dagger pointed at your immune system. A good friend stomped out of my house one night, furious I’d served pork for dinner, because pork, everyone knew, could kill you if you had “it.” Even after the test became available, many chose not to know. When my partner and I tested positive, we shrugged. We already knew.
I felt stalked by death. Sex could mean death now, not freedom. More friends became ill, then more. Far too many died. Often their deaths were gruesome. Eulogies were perfected. TV news anchors looked at you every night and calmly pronounced your disease “always fatal.”